Tingle, Tim. Saltypie: A Choctaw Journey from Darkness into Light. Ill. by Clarkson, Karen. El Paso: Cinco Puntos Press. 2010.
In this inspiring children’s book, author Tim Tingle recounts the story of his paternal Choctaw grandmother’s encounter with deep-seated racism. As a young woman, she was hit by rock near her eye, and later in life went blind. However, at the time her young son misunderstood her injury and called it “saltypie”. That word stayed with the close-knit family and was said when something bad happened to one of them through the years. When Mawmaw receives her sight, her son decides to use it no more to describe adversities. Because of Mawmaw’s resilient spirit, her family learns to overcome the adversities presented them.
This non-fiction children’s picture book appeals to readers from seven years old to twelve years old. The plot moves from the present to the past and back again. However, the defining conflict takes place when the author’s grandmother was a young woman. She, her husband, and son had recently moved to Texas from Oklahoma. On the first day in their home, a white boy throws a rock at her, injuring her face. Her young son saw her holding her head in her hands and did not realize his mom was bleeding. He called it “saltypie” and thus coined a word his family would adopt as their mantra when trouble comes, especially if it involved Mawmaw.
Later in her life, Mawmaw becomes blind and functions so well that her six-year-old grandson (the author) does not realize she is blind. It is then he learns the story of “saltypie” and the example of his brave grandmother who carried on despite her handicap.
Years pass and when the author was in college, Mawmaw had an eye transplant. The whole clan gathered at the hospital and stayed for four days in support of Mawmaw and each other. The waiting room seemed transformed into a sacred time while reminiscing the past. Finally, when the doctor announced that Mawmaw could see, her son said that “saltypie” was over for their family because Mawmaw’s darkness had ended and she had stepped into the light. This was a defining point in time for this family as “all of our Choctaw troubles had led up to this moment.”
The book is set in both Texas and Oklahoma. Mawmaw is shown as a young girl in a boarding school in Oklahoma. Later in 1915, as a married woman, she and her family move to Pasadena, Texas where the racial incident happened. Although the story is biographical, the racial prejudice could happen anywhere despite the location. As the story progresses, the setting is contemporary with scenes set in modern homes and a modern hospital.
The characters emerge through the illustrations and the narration of the story. Since the story is biographical, the characters are real people and some of them are still alive today. To give an in-depth portrayal of Mawmaw, she is pictured in many stages of her life. As a child she experienced great sadness living at Tuskahoma Academy, an Oklahoma boarding school for Native Americans, and then as an orphan when her father died. In her later years, she is the matriarch of the large family that included thirty-two grandchildren. Even then, she was courageous and chose to have an eye transplant so she could see.
The themes of the book are universal, including social justice and the power of the family and its traditions. The theme of a journey from darkness to light permeates the story. Darkness is the racism that Mawmaw experienced starting as a young girl living in a boarding home to teach her how to survive in a white world. Darkness is also the physical blindness she experienced, but she journeyed from both of these adverse circumstances into the light and brought her family with her. As Tingle said, “Blind as she was, she taught so many how to see.”
The theme of family is best highlighted through the illustrations. When the family gathers in the hospital waiting room, their ancestors are standing in the background behind them with Mawmaw listening as they recall old family stories. This is also a cultural marker as the Choctaw people feel a deep connection with their ancestors and telling their stories as part their rich past. Tingle sums up Mawmaw’s legacy to him in the words, “If we learn to listen to the quiet and secret music, as my Mawmaw did, we will leave happy footfalls behind us in our going.” Choctaw people treasure the ability to think deeply about life and the lessons learned in the journey.
This book showcases Tim Tingle’s style of storytelling. He weaves a story, almost like a movie, as the events move back and forth through time like flashbacks. His descriptions make the reader feel even the textures of the elements. When Mawmaw is hit by the rock, she “slid against the surface of the pine door and crumpled in a heap on the floor.” In his use of literacy devices, the wind was “washing the backyard with the soft music of rustling corn stalks.”
Karen Clarkson, a Choctaw artist and tribal member, beautifully illustrated the book, which is her first one. Her specialty is Native American portraits, which complements this picture book. The use of vibrant color brings the book to life. Since the book refers to light many times, she highlights faces with sunlight, lamplight, and both sunlight and moonlight streaming in through a window. When Mawmaw’s son takes away the use of “saltypie” in a moment of “enlightenment”, there is a glow of light behind him illuminating him. On the final pages, Mawmaw is illustrated standing in front of the sun radiating light. The symbolism of her journey from darkness to light is illustrated throughout the book creating a sense of inspiration.
Tingle and Clarkson are qualified to create this book, as both author and illustrator are Choctaw tribal members. Clarkson illustrated the characters with varying shades of skin tone and hair color. Since the story is set in modern times, the clothing is not tribal, but contemporary. The clothing of the ancestors is culturally accurate for the period they represent. When Mawmaw is standing with the ancestors, she is wearing native jewelry. A rural setting is shown with the cornfield next to the home and a chicken coop in the backyard.
Although their native language is not used in the book, the interactions between the characters are rooted solidly in Native American culture. The elders are respected as curators of Native American history. With Mawmaw as the leader of the Tingle family, a matriarchal society is portrayed. Storytelling is a part of their oral tradition and is foundational to their culture. Respect for nature is evident in how they treat the chickens, eggs, and insects.
Finally, the author’s notes and photographs round out the story. The reader is privileged to see Mawmaw, her house, and her family. In addition, Tim Tingle tell the reader “a whispered secret, a secret only a few outside of Indian Country even suspect.” He tells of bigotry and stereotypes of Native Americans, and then offers suggestions on how to address these issues. This background information is invaluable after reading this book since it drives home the story just read.
♦ Study the history of the Native American boarding schools in Oklahoma. For example, the Tuskahoma Female Academy existed from 1912 to 1925 when it burned down.
♦ Show the students that the Choctaw Nation exists today as a nation within the United States. Find more information at http://www.choctawnation.com/.
♦ Read more books by Tim Tingle such as When Turtle Grew Feathers and Crossing Bok Chitto to give the students a deeper look into the Choctaw culture.
♦ ALA Notable Books for Children, 2011
♦ American Indian Youth Literature Award for Picture Book, 2011
♦ Storytelling World Resource Award, 2011
♦ Skipping Stones Honor Award, 2011
♦ Oklahoma Book Award Nominee, 2011
“Tingle shares his family history and their experience with racism. Clarkson’s illustrations quietly capture the sadness and joy of Tingle’s words as he recounts how his grandmother lost and eventually regained her sight. The story and the author’s intimate and notes provide opportunities for readers to move from darkness into light.” ♦ School Library Journal
“Moving back and forward in time, Tingle offers a tribute to his grandmother, Mawmaw, in a quietly poetic story about dealing with adversity. Using a nice variety of perspectives, newcomer Clarkson conveys Mawmaw’s fortitude and the family’s intergenerational bonds in gauzy paintings.” ♦ Publishers Weekly